Request a DemoLog In(844) 692-0626
Request a DemoLog In
cta-construction-image

Make it easier to manage construction.

See it in Action

—  6 min read

What Is Lean Construction? Definition and Principles

By 

Last Updated Nov 21, 2023

Construction workers collaborating at meeting site

If you ever get asked to take part in a lean construction project, it may offer a fresh perspective on building. Lean construction principles — and the practices that flow from them — not only transform projects, but have the potential to transform entire companies. Let's take a look at the key principles of lean construction.

Table of contents

What is lean construction?

Lean construction is a relationship-oriented, production management-based approach to construction project delivery that emphasizes the management and design of construction processes, as opposed to just the end product. At heart, its main goals are maximizing stakeholder value while minimizing waste — all while heavily emphasizing inter-team collaboration.

In practice, working lean means you can reliably release work from one construction process to the next. Just imagine being able to turn the building over to whoever is next in line to do their work and know everything will proceed as planned. The authors of Foundations of Lean Construction compare the realization people have when they grasp reliability to the moment when they learn to ride a bike. Suddenly, they feel a new freedom and get a fresh sense of speed and range. 

When someone grasps the idea of reliability in construction, they feel empowered by the notion that they can change design, supply, assembly, and control to get better results, knowing it will work.

Lean Construction principles

Construction projects have phases, beginning with design and ending with closeout. Each stakeholder performs their function as assigned by contract.

In lean construction, the focus switches from individual stakeholders focused solely on their individual roles to all stakeholders working as a team. When applying lean construction principles, the project takes on extra dimensions as participants consider its entire life cycle when deciding what to build and how to build it.

Make it easier to manage construction.

See it in Action
Illustration showing framers assembling a wooden wall

Focusing on the process and flow

In construction — and many businesses — each participant tends to focus on their own self-interests. This means relationships can remain transactional, with contracts ensuring that outcome. 

But in a lean project, everybody focuses on the construction process. When they follow lean construction practices, they optimize everything for the final product. 

If you are a subcontractor on a lean project, you will take part in design with all the other participants. If you are the general contractor, you and the owner will accept design variations suggested by a subcontractor if it’s best for the project. Regardless of your role on a lean project, you have a voice, and it will be heard.

Lean construction also fits the process custom to the product. So, you don’t build a project component in a certain way just because it’s always done this way. Instead, you use a building method and materials that you and the team have optimized for that component. 

Planning rather than reacting

With the pace of many modern construction projects, teams are used to thinking in the short term. During the design phase of a lean construction project, on the other hand, the participants consider the entire life cycle of the structure. Not just what happens to it at midlife, but also what happens when it’s reached the logical conclusion of its life. 

Lean construction project participants also consider how their individual interests affect each other to align their short-term and long-term interests to the project’s benefit.

Today’s projects foretell success in future projects. What went right and what went wrong is only instructive if you analyze it. In a lean construction project, participants honor the future by incorporating lessons from the past at all levels.

Creating structures to achieve goals

In a lean project, you use a systemic approach when getting ready to begin an activity. Then, people doing the work make a firm commitment to complete it following the requirements. In this way, activities start “at the last responsible moment.” Work is "pulled" rather than "pushed" — this helps increase efficiency and reduces waste.

Learn more: Pull Planning in Construction

As work gets underway, everybody tunes into the lean construction practices in use so they can foresee and solve problems that could potentially threaten completion. Commitment is key, and on a lean project, every participant is already committed if they signed on to the project. Plus, they know that help flows in all directions so they are not in it alone. 

Managing the project supply chain

The supply chain on most construction projects is fragmented. Each participant manages their own materials and equipment. Parties to a lean construction project work together to improve supply chain performance, allowing them to free themselves from market variabilities. They can reduce price shocks, shortages, and lead times.

Always working toward continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a key principle of lean construction. This final principle affects all the others — anywhere things can be improved and optimized can be addressed. According to the Lean Tenets, "Lean encourages teams to come together to create a log of constraints that are limiting or blocking productivity on a project." Perfection is never possible — but constantly striving to improve helps create a more productive environment and enables all the other lean principles.

Quality & Safety

Stay Ahead & Leave Risk Behind

Manage, baseline, and improve your quality and safety program from your desktop and mobile devices.

Learn More
Illustration of construction professional surrounded by circle of charts on screens

Benefits of lean construction

If everything on a lean construction project is operating optimally, stakeholder value would be maximized and waste would always be minimized — as is set out in lean's largest goals. But how have the ideals of lean construction performed in the real world?

In a notable 2018 study, companies using the most effective lean methods completed 45% of projects early and delivered 70% of them under budget.  

Turner Construction has implemented the lean construction approach in its enterprise. Turner's lean construction page discusses their use of the approach across the company, as well as an example of how lean was used on The New Canaan Library construction project.

For more studies and downloadable resources about lean construction, visit leanconstruction.org.

Transitioning to lean construction means growth and transformation

While few who have studied lean construction would disagree with its benefits, the transition to it requires changes in human behavior. Companies must figure out how to overcome lean’s contradictions with long-held group behavior.

Those who have transitioned to lean construction have themes in their stories of “urgency, leadership, focus, structure, discipline and trajectory,” making this transition nothing short of a transformation.

Categories:

Project Execution

Tags:

Written by

Duane Craig

In addition to his career as a construction project manager/superintendent, Duane has worked as a photojournalist, education director, and landscaper. For the past 14 years, Duane has covered the construction, finance, and tech industries.

View profile

Sarah Dean

View profile
Win More Work

Get discovered for relevant work on the Procore Construction Network.

Get a Free Account
Construction professionals

Explore more helpful resources

article-image

Overbilling in Construction: Understanding Billing in Excess of Costs

The financial stability of construction firms often hinges on effectively managing the timing between incurring costs and receiving payments. This delay can significantly strain a company’s financial resources, emphasizing the...

article-image

Cost Breakdown Structure: Enhancing Financial Clarity in Construction

General contractors must closely monitor project costs across various categories, such as labor, materials and equipment to preserve their profit margins — ensuring that the actual costs incurred during the...

article-image

Construction Sites: The Ultimate Guide to Project Efficiency

Well-built construction projects depend on well-run construction sites. Materials need to be delivered, plans need to be executed and issues need to be caught and fixed as early as possible....

article-image

How to Build Efficient Construction Workflows

It’s not uncommon for one construction project to finish right on time and on budget while another, similar project falls hopelessly behind and loses money at every turn. Some of...

Procore is committed to advancing the construction industry by improving the lives of people working in construction, driving technology innovation, and building a global community of groundbreakers. Our connected global construction platform unites all stakeholders on a project with unlimited access to support and a business model designed for the construction industry.

LinkedIn Icon
LinkedIn
Facebook icon
Facebook
Twitter icon
Twitter
Instagram Icon
Instagram
YouTube icon
YouTube

Call us at (844) 692-0626 to speak with a product expert.

Apple LogoApple App StoreGoogle Play logoGoogle Play

Downloads

Apple LogoApple App StoreGoogle Play logoGoogle Play
  • Privacy Notice
  • Terms of Service
  • Do Not Sell Personal Information

© 2024 Procore Technologies, Inc.